|In the Oval Office Private Dining Room|
Washington, DC - White House Press Secretary Jay Carney on Wednesday said that granting press photographers rare access to President Barack Obama and Vice President Joe Biden's first private lunch of 2014 had nothing to do with former Defense Secretary Robert Gates' forthcoming tell-all memoir, which is rocking the nation's capital with its scathing critique of the President's leadership on military issues.
The 12:30 PM luncheon in the Oval Office Private Dining Room came on the heels of Tuesday's publication of excerpts from Gates' forthcoming book Duty: Memoirs of a Secretary at War, where he slams the President, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, and especially Biden.
The Vice President was "wrong on nearly every major foreign policy and national security issue over the past four decades," Gates writes.
But scheduling the first-ever photo spray for the President's weekly luncheon the day after Gates' critique went public was "coincidence," Carney afterwards told reporters during the daily press briefing.
That "coincidence" is a first. Since 2009, the President and Biden have had weekly lunches when their travel/vacation schedules allow, and these have always been closed to press.
In 2013 alone they lunched together privately 32 times. Reporters and press photographers were barred from every meal.
Carney insisted the rare photo op for a handful of pool photographers and one videographer is simply part of a new commitment to improve access after months of complaints from the White House press corps.
"We have been committed to looking for ways to provide greater access for photographers to the White House and the President," Carney said. "And providing a photo opportunity today was part of that commitment - fulfilling that commitment."
The photo op lasted a total of 30 seconds before the meal was served. No questions were allowed as pool observed the President and Vice President seated at opposite ends of the mahogany dining table. Both were in their shirtsleeves as Biden told the President about the weather during his Christmas vacation in the US Virgin Islands.
"As a senator and as a Vice President, Joe Biden has been one of the leading statesmen of his time, and he has been an excellent counselor and advisor to the President for the past five years," Carney said.
Though the issue of photographic access has been highly contentious, reporters remained skeptical about the timing of the rare photo spray and continued to quiz Carney.
Carney received a formal complaint about access on Nov. 21, 2013 in a three-page letter signed by the White House Correspondents Association (WHCA) and 37 major media entities, which rebuked the White House for reducing press photographers' access to routine Presidential activities, such as bill signings.
Following the letter, editorials appeared in major papers chastising the Obama Administration for essentially becoming a Soviet-style propaganda machine that issues photographs taken by Chief White House Photographer Pete Soouza and other staff instead of allowing press photographers to do their work.
Carney and his staff finally met with members of the WHCA and representatives from news agencies in December, and pledged to improve access.
During the briefing, Carney went on the defensive as reporters continued to press him on the timing of the photo op. He pointed out that "the President and the Vice President have a standing weekly lunch."
"But it’s not normally on camera," interjected one reporter.
Carney brushed this off, instead pointing out that "when the Vice President is in town, he attends virtually all meetings that the President holds, especially on national security matters."
Biden had four different meetings with the President on his official schedule on Wednesday, ranging from the morning Presidential Daily Briefing to a late afternoon Oval Office meeting with Secretary of State John Kerry.
"I don’t think anybody who has covered us or knows the President and the Vice President, knows how this White House functions, has any doubt about the President’s faith in Vice President Biden as an advisor and counselor," Carney said in response to another question.
"So we don’t need to reinforce that; it’s a fact."
Carney metaphorically threw up his hands when a reporter again asked if the timing of the photo op was a response to Gates.
"I can just tell you what the facts are," Carney said. "I mean, you can decide for yourselves what you want to believe."
The White House by late Tuesday was already defending Biden from Gates' assault, using the same language Carney used with reporters during the daily briefing.
"The President disagrees with Secretary Gates' assessment," said National Security Council spokeswoman Caitlin Hayden in a statement.
"Joe Biden has been one of the leading statesmen of his time."
The rest of the President's events for Wednesday were closed to press, and Souza was the photographer in the room for the meetings.
|A White House photo of the President after lunch, with AG Holder|
Ahead of the luncheon, the President and Biden received the Presidential Daily Briefing in the Oval Office at 9:45 AM. At 10:45 AM, they met with the Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board in the Situation Room. Their afternoon ended with the meeting with Sec. Kerry at 3:45 PM.
The President also issued a statement on Wednesday wishing German Chancellor Angela Merkel a speedy recovery from a recent skiing accident, and congratulating her on forming a new cabinet.
"The President also extended an invitation to the Chancellor to visit Washington at a mutually agreeable time in the coming months," the White House said.
*Top photo by pool/Doug Mills/New York Times; second by AP; third by pool/Brendan Smialowski for Getty Images; fourth by Pete Souza/White House